The Pope, though indomitable, is visibly ailing, hardly able to walk or to look at people he has to meet. Only those close to him know whether his mind is still sharp or whether others are making decisions for him.
Last week's consistory was inevitably seen as a rehearsal for the conclave that will be in time be convened to name John Paul II's successor.
Of the 134 Cardinals who attended it, 123 have been appointed by John Paul during his Papacy and, of these, 44 were named as recently as February of this year.
It is a natural assumption, therefore, that the views of a majority of these Cardinals are sympathetic to John Paul's own rather conservative ideas on the future of the Church.
The Cardinals have few opportunities to meet each other so last week's gathering provided a vitally important opportunity for those with Papal pretensions to make themselves known to potential supporters.
But, whatever the merits of the individuals, the key issue will probably be whether the Italian bloc of Cardinals with 24 votes or the Latin America with 26 will be able to determine the outcome with an acceptable candidate.
If neither can, then the next Pope might be as much of an outsider as John Paul was when he received the vote twenty three years ago.
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